King Sekhemkhet and his Pyramid at Saqqara

About Egyptian Pyramids
by Jimmy Dunn writing as Alan Winston


>> Pyramid Index / Saqqara Kings



King Sekhemkhet


The name of King Sekhemkhet's Pyramid at Saqqara in Egypt


Almost everything we know about Sekhemkhet ("Powerful in Body"), we know because of his unfinished (Buried) pyramid at Saqqara, and it seems to give us little facts about his life. The only evidence outside of this tomb is a scene depicted at Wadi Maghara in the Sinai which bears his name. It is a military scene, classical in that it probably shows Sekhemkhet, with his raised mace, about to smite his desert enemies. This relief actually shows a procession of Sekhemkhets. In front of the smiting king, who is wearing the White Crown is a second depiction of the king wearing the Red Crown, and in front of him, another of Sekhemkhet back in the White Crown.




An image  of King Sekhemkhet



However, we are not really sure of much about this king. According to the Turin King-list, Djoser's immediate successor was identified by his personal name Djoser-Ti (Djoserty), and ruled for only six years. It now seems that most Egyptologists believe Djoser-Ti and Sekhemkhet were one and the same person, though some might still argue otherwise. His reign would have been from about 2649 until 2643 BC.


Judging from an inscription on his pyramid at Saqqara, and from its very design, we can also tentatively guess that the great Imhotep survived Djoser, his predecessor, and was again the mind behind the funerary complex works. Also, because of his short reign, and particularly his truncated pyramid, many believe he came to a sudden and unexpected death, though we have no idea what might have caused it.


The Buried Pyramid of Sekhemkhet



The location of King Sekhemkhet's Pyramid at Saqqara in Egypt



Another possible building project of Imhotep may have been the pyramid of Sekhemkhet. Also located at Saqqara, it would be rather remarkable for this pyramid to have been designed by anyone else, or to have belonged to someone other then Sekhemkhet. In many ways, it duplicated elements from the Step Pyramid of Djoser.


Sekhemkhet's step pyramid was perhaps first noticed by a young Egyptian archaeologist named Zakaria Goneim while he was working at Saqqara excavating the pyramid of Unas, just before World War II. When the war erupted, he set out that period in Luxor, but afterwards returned to Saqqara to further investigate the huge, rectangular structure barely visible beneath a sand dune. It was only about one hundred meters to the southwest of the site Goneim had been working before the war, and he could tell that it was roughly oriented north-south.


As he began to uncover the structure, he found that the four corners he had seen beneath the sand dune were actually the walls of an enclosure, and inside were the ruins of a previously unknown pyramid. Soon it was clear that this was a 3rd Dynasty pyramid, because the facade of the perimeter wall, with its facade ornamented with deep niches, was so very similar to the wall that Djoser had built for his complex.


Part of the Mortuary temple of  King Sekhemkhet's Pyramid at Saqqara in Egypt


The pyramid was built upon an uneven rock surface, so the builders were forced to level the terrain, building large terraces, of which some were more than ten meters high. Why the king chose this site for his pyramid is a bit of a mystery, though there are some nearby royal tombs from the 2nd Dynasty that may have lured him there.


The perimeter wall was built in to phases. In the first phase, it was a much less radical rectangle. Later it was extended south, and particularly north. With these extensions, it was close to the size of Djoser/s complex. Like Djoser's complex, it has rows of niches alternating in a regular intervals with false doors, though there was probably only one real door in the entire complex, which has never been found. The wall was cased in fine, white Tura limestone. The wall probably stood about ten meters tall, with a walkway and sentry posts just as in the complex of Djoser.



Side View drawing of the substructure of King Sekhemkhet's Pyramid at Saqqara in Egypt



It has been difficult to determine whether the core was originally planned as six or seven steps, but apparently, the pyramid itself was never completed, having only reached a height of about 26 feet. It was built using the accretion layer method with the stones laid inwards at a 15 degree slope. These stones were laid at right angles to the incline. Since the pyramid was unfinished, there was never any casing applied. The pyramid probably had a square floor plan, with sides about 119 meters in length. According to Lehner, if the pyramid was built in seven steps, it would have been higher then Djoser's, rising some 70 meters (230 ft) above its base.


An entrance to the pyramid was found in front of the north wall, leading into a corridor that eventually communicated with the burial chamber. However, this corridor was bisected by a vertical shaft that extended up into the masonry of the pyramid itself. This was a type of security system also found in other Egyptian tombs, specifically at Beit Khallaf, dating to this period. Within the shaft, Goneim found the bones of various animals, including cattle, rams and gazelles, that were doubtless offerings to the deceased. he also found 62 papyri from the 26th Dynasty written during the reign of Ahmose II. Below these were some seven hundred stone vessels and remarkably a gold treasure cache from the 3rd Dynasty.



Entrance of King Sekhemkhet's Pyramid at Saqqara in Egypt



These artifacts included 21 bracelets, small mussel shells, and faience corals covered with gold leaf. The items are, so far, the oldest gold ornamentation discovered in Egypt. It was no doubt a part of Sekhemkhet's funerary goods, but how it ended up at the bottom of the shaft rather than stolen with the rest of the tomb's content remains a mystery.


About 47 meters before reaching the burial chamber, a U shaped passage leads off to the east, and is lined with a series of narrow, long storage annexes. After the entrance to this auxiliary passage, the main corridor continues. It was between here, and the burial chamber that clay vessel stoppers were discovered bearing Sekhemkhet's name, which is another reason why we attribute the pyramid to him.



Objects Dated to the Reign of King Sekhemkhet



The main corridor continues to descend down until reaching first a transverse corridor, and then to the burial chamber just to the other side, some 100 feet below the base of the pyramid. The burial chamber is lined up precisely with the pyramid's vertical axis. The walls within this north-south oriented burial chamber were left unfinished. Inside there apparently remains a highly polished alabaster sarcophagus cut from a single stone. This is very rare, for the only other alabaster we know of used in such a way was in the coffins of Queen Hetephere I, of the 4th Dynasty, and Seti I, of the 19th Dynasty. It also had no cover, but rather a sliding partition.



Objects Dated to the Reign of King Sekhemkhet



There is an interesting story related to this sarcophagus and its unique sliding partition. When found, the partition to the sarcophagus was sealed, and even the remains of what he believed to be dried flowers (later determined to be bark and decomposed wood) lay atop it. Furthermore, Goneim also claims that the entrance to the pyramid was blocked by an in tact wall. Goneim was sure he had discovered an in tact sarcophagus still bearing the remains of its owner. Though he was warned by other Egyptologists, notably Lauer, that the substructure had been robbed, he nevertheless created a media sensation. he invited high state officials, journalists, reporters and film teams to the opening. Then came the shock of an empty sarcophagus.


He apparently managed to survive this embarrassment, for after all, he had made a reasonably important discovery by finding the pyramid of Sekhemkhet. Many Egyptology professionals throughout the world had considerable interest in what was probably only the second pyramid built in Egypt.



Burial Chamber  of King Sekhemkhet's Pyramid at Saqqara in Egypt



Just outside of the entrance to the burial chamber, the transverse corridor leads off the the right (westerly) and to the left, and then each makes a 90 degree tern back to the south past the burial chamber. These galleries were also unfinished, and may have been intended to lead to a larger mortuary apartment, similar to the one in Djoser's complex.


Outside of the pyramid within the complex on the south, just as in the case of Djoser's complex, there is also a symbolic south tomb. The superstructure of the tomb consisted of a mastaba built of limestone blocks. It had an entrance on the west side, also like Djoser's complex. From there, a long corridor descended to the east, and like in the pyramid, was interrupted by a vertical shaft. Further down the main corridor, though this tomb had probably not been meant for a burial, the excavators found the fragments of a small coffin that had held the remains of about a two year old child.


The burial chamber in the south tomb was small, but found within it were fragments of thin gold leaf impressed with a pattern imitating reed matting. Also found were animal bones and stone vessels.


Unfortunately, Goneim would never finish excavating the pyramid. Having achieved some amount of fame, he went off to the United States on a lecture tour, and even wrote a book about his discovery named The Buried Pyramid. The book was successful, and even translated into different languages, but when he returned to Egypt, everything fell apart. He was accused of smuggling a large, valuable vessel that Quibell and Lauer had found two years earlier near in the Djoser complex out of the country. There was no hard evidence, only accusations and slander, but it devastated Goneim, who one must remember is also Egyptian. He was repeatedly interrogated by the police.



Plan of King Sekhemkhet's Pyramid at Saqqara in Egypt



It was his friend Lauer who attempted to finally help him. In 1957, he tracked the missing vessel to a corner of the Egyptian Museum's depository. But like an Egyptian tragedy, even as Lauer was hurrying back to Saqqara to redeem his friend, Goneim was jumping into the Nile to commit suicide.


In fact, it was Lauer who returned to the site in about 1963 for a hurried search for answers. It was he who discovered the south tomb, along with the south side of the perimeter wall. But unfortunately, no one yet has excavated the mortuary temple or the rest of the grounds. Many questions remain about this pyramid. For example, was Sekhemkhet ever buried, here, and if he was not, what happened to this king. The sealed sarcophagus seems to indicate, though not with certainty, that it never held his remains. By all indications, he came to an abrupt end, if we consider his attempted pyramid as evidence. In fact, most Egyptologist seem to agree that he probably only ruled for about six years. Perhaps he died in some remote expedition, his body never again seen. On the other hand, some future excavation may give us real answers to these questions.




Perimeter wall: 262m x 185x

After enlargement: 500m x 185m


See also:


The Pyramids of Ancient Egypt








Reference Number

Complete Pyramids, The (Solving the Ancient Mysteries)

Lehner, Mark


Thames and Hudson, Ltd

ISBN 0-500-05084-8

Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, The

Shaw, Ian


Oxford University Press

ISBN 0-19-815034-2

Pyramids, The (The Mystery, Culture, and Science of Egypt's Great Monuments)

Verner, Miroslav


Grove Press

ISBN 0-8021-1703-1